Moor, Moor, Moor

[N.B. I admit that the title of this piece is a rather bad pun on a classic disco song. I do not apologize.]

Today is the birthday of one of America’s first internationally famous authors, Washington Irving (1783-1859).  He is perhaps best known these days for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or “The Tale of Rip Van Winkle”, but back in his own day he was very much appreciated for his long travelogue-novel-essay collection, “Tales of the Alhambra”, published in 1827.  Irving’s love of Moorish design found its way into the imaginations of the well-to-do in this country, taking tangible form and affecting the American home and landscape.

Irving was already a well-known author when he arrived in the city of Granada in southern Spain in 1828, and moved into an apartment in the famous Alhambra palace, built by the Moors beginning in the 9th century.  His descriptions of its shaded courtyards with playing fountains, colorfully tiled walls and elaborately decorated plaster ceilings, led to sincere efforts to preserve and restore the Alhambra, after many centuries of general neglect.  However Irving also had an impact on Americans’ imagination, since children who read Irving’s stories of caliphs and princesses in Andalusian Spain, grew up to be the tastemakers of the Victorian and Gilded Ages.

Beginning in the 1850’s, and continuing right up through the 1930’s, American architects and designers produced all sorts of variations on a Moorish-themed building or room.  This was often not really Moorish, but more of a fanciful mixture of various Islamic and non-Islamic elements, without any attempt to perceive the differences between, say, Moroccan and Syrian styles.  In the Victorian period, John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the great American industrialist, had a magnificent Moorish smoking room installed in his New York City mansion.  Although there was nothing particularly authentic about the result, if you were a Rockefeller, no one was going to correct you on the technical points.

Moorish design elements popped up everywhere over the next several decades, even in the White House, as Louis Comfort Tiffany designed Moorish rooms and decorative objects for wealthy and prominent clients.  Bizarrely enough, given the context, Jewish communities across the country began building exotic synagogues in a supposedly Moorish style, among the most famous being the magnificent Central Synagogue on 55th and Lex in Manhattan.  When movie theatres came into existence after the First World War, supposedly Moorish architecture design turned many of them into pleasure pavilions that could have come out of Washington Irving’s imagination.  Even the movie stars themselves were built bungalows and mansions in the Hollywood Hills that featured Moorish details.

At the tail end of this mania, one of the most spectacular of all Moorish home improvement efforts was Shangri La, the Hawaii vacation home which American tobacco heiress Doris Duke began building in 1937, after honeymooning in countries like Spain, Morocco, and Egypt.  Never mind, of course, that the “Shangri-La” from James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” was a Buddhist monastery located in the Himalayas.  Much had changed in the fifty years that separated John D. Rockefeller, Sr. from Doris Duke, but money had not.  And if Rockefeller’s generation had embraced the trend, Duke’s generation saw it out, with sunken marble bathtubs surrounded by geometric and floral tiles, with colored glass lanterns dangling from wrought iron chains along the ceiling.

Later in life, to his delight Washington Irving was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, a position he served in for five years.  Following his retirement from the post in 1847, he moved back home to his cottage called “Sunnyside”, in the Hudson River Valley.  The home was one of the most famous in America, considered second only to Mount Vernon in its influence on American design at the time.

In his retirement, Irving added a fanciful wing onto the house based on some of the Moorish architecture he had loved in Spain, but simplified for more Yankee surroundings.  After his death, the Irving family continued to live in the house until World War II, when it was sold to – of all people – John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of the man whose elaborate, Moorish smoking parlor is today preserved in the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  It’s hard to imagine a more fitting completion of the circle that Irving himself began, with his first, written sketches of Moorish Spain.


Frontispiece for the 1851 edition of Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra"

Frontispiece for the 1851 edition of Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra”

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